Autotraumatisation – On the Movies of John Carpenter
(Curfew, Curfew) As we grow more accustomed to the control of the urban environment through surveillance, zero tolerance zones and regeneration projects it seems as if we inhabit a social world that is policed by technology and is obsessed with security. Just what this technology secures us from is as encrypted as the microchips and cables that power it. Maybe it secures us from ourselves: a constant reminder that we are being ‘watched’ which comes to strengthen the internalisation of those mechanisms of paranoia and stasis that an inherited morality has already instilled. Thus the surveillance camera becomes an externalised metaphor for a vigilant super-ego… the eye of the father… the gaze of the manager… and in this way #we are assured that somewhere, someone is watching a monitor and checking that a consensual social equilibrium remains untroubled, vigilantly making sure that there are no signs of a ruffled surface, no over conspicuous indications of a step-out-of-line. But surely it is naive to assume that what can be seen is all that there is and that fear can be dispelled by such totemic pieces of technology as cameras and monitors. Such devices are as protective as the soporifics of entertainment and the cyclical chatter of a celebrity-fuelled media, but in no way do they successfully eradicate trauma and the persistence of social-irrationality. Perhaps worse, the idea that we are protected proliferates into a culture of overprotection where every foible and tension becomes something that needs to be medicalised and returned to an enervated ‘normality’. In the nightmare scenario it seems as if the surveillance camera, charged with eradicating fear, is now becoming programmed to detect dangerous levels of adrenalin and to take photo-fits of those who glow with a surplus of undirected energy.
(Emotionless Eyes) What became of the horror film? From the mid 70s to the late 80s horror films in their various guises of slasher, occult and rape revenge films were unavoidable. They were the arse end of cinema-going, competing only with action movies like Rambo and Rocky for the honour of most deplored genre. Guilty of the exploitative crimes of sadism and sexism and perpetrators par excellence of the ‘male gaze’ it is only recently that horror films have been resuscitated by film critics eager to analyse their viscerality and psychological complications (1). One of the leading protagonists of the slasher variety of the horror genre was John Carpenter and it is his Halloween that, whilst indebted to Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, unleashed a whole run of similar movies like Friday 13th, Fright Night, Slumber Party Massacre, Nighmare on Elm Street etc. Though Carpenter has constantly shifted ground since the success of Halloween, mixing up genres and imbricating them with each other, it is safe to say that he has been a director who has worked on the fringes of critical acceptance and that, within the confines of a low budget, he has done much to inflect his movies with subversive resonances. It is this freedom that low budget pictures allows that is most striking about Carpenter’s early movies and he has himself remarked how “in independent studio work, often you’re out for a different purpose, and you can take more chances because you have less money at risk…” (2). This different purpose can be seen in how Carpenter takes horror and trauma into the dull and controlled suburbs with Halloween, resuscitates the threat of native indians with Ass#ault on Precinct 13, comments upon car driven consumerism with Christine and raises the spectre of brainwashing and media mind control with They Live and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Unlike a director such as Dario Argento, whose stylised horror films of macabre mise-en-scene have been the subject of retrospectives at the National Film Theatre, Carpenter’s movies are less assimilable to being displayed as the work of an ‘auteur’. Being more of a B-movie artisan Carpenter aims not so much at injecting the frame with an artistic transcendence but more towards stripping back the content of the frame to a point that it becomes more ‘realist’ and, unburdening itself of an aestheticised aura, more conducive to the introjection of a politicised content. Not being ‘beautiful’ to look at, such Carpenter movies as Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, are less awe-inspiring than an Argento movie, but, as a r#esult, they work more consciously and consistently upon what Christian Metz has called the ‘second screen’: the viewers imagination where images, sound and script form themselves into an organised sequence. Rather than subliminally effect or spectacularly bombard this ‘second screen’ our conscious apprehension of the movies has the effect of heightening perception in that the fictional construct we watch becomes more readily interlocked with our own experiences. Dealing in horror and suspense, Carpenter not only seems to heighten the traumatic effect by making his films less ‘fantastic’, but also, as with his minimal electronic soundtracks, he makes their allusory qualities more open to interpretative readings and the transmission of affect.
This openness is vouched for by Carpenter’s reflexivity as a film maker. Not only does he make reference to his own films and to the films of others (characters in Halloween watch Howard Hawks’s The Thing and characters in Halloween #III watch the original Halloween),he seems intent on making his movies into genre patchworks. This reflexivity not only foregrounds the constructedness of the movies and asks “why horror, why the fascination”thus illumining the social production of fear it also, whilst evoking nostalgia, punctures it by establishing a distance between the past and a more uncertain, contemporaneous situation. Such an intrusion of ‘reality’ means that the reassuring genre certainties of movies like The Thing (and by extension the Cold War mind-set of the 50s) are revealed as inoperative and this undermines our reliance upon genre-categories as the sole means of explaining away, and being resistant, to an engagement with the so-called ‘low’ genres. On the otherhand, in a sci-fi movie like They Live , Carpenter applies the genre-rules to such a degree that the#y are pushed to absurdity. Just as an overly drawn-out fist fight goes on and on in a parody of the machismo of action movies, Carpenter draws upon the way that B-Movie studios would demand that the endings of movies be re-shot by, in this film, explaining away his neo-situationist revelation of advertising as, not the social magic of capitalism but, the ploy of invading aliens. That the aliens and the final explosion are so obviously drawn to look unconvincing is a measure of Carpenter’s often understated disgust of the spectacular effect of the movies and, in equal measure, a pointer towards a reading of his films in their tangential aspects: we remember images of money displaying the subliminal message of ‘This Is Your God’ and advertising hoardings transfor#med into stark revelations of manipulation, moreso than we remember the plot involutions and the narrative resolution. Dark Star is another point in case. Coming across like a collision between Jean Luc Goddard and a trashy robot movie, Carpenter references Kubrick’s 2001 and, in a variety of ways, he pokes fun at this self-serious classic whilst at the same time making its ‘mysticisms’ more prosaic and down to earth. Bored astronauts, so overly reliant upon the craft’s computer, have lost the autonomous ability to think for themselves and, when faced with the crisis of a malfunction, rush to consult their cryogenically preserved commander before breaking up into squabbling over a weapon. With special effects akin to Gerry Anderson cartoons and with an ‘alien’ so ob#viously constructed from an over-inflated beachball, Carpenter still manages to engage his audience with a film that is as much about alienation and ineffective communication as it is a simplistic spoof.
As if to make his relation to genre more complicated Carpenter has playfully suggested that all his movies are “really westerns underneath” (3) and, Halloween’s not being a horror film in the usual sense of a supernatural struggle between good and evil bears this out. This instability that allows a viewing of Halloween as being simultaneously a revenge western, a detective story, a high school picture, a monster movie and a psychological thriller is further complicated by the way that Carpenter moves between different registers of fright, camp, realism, and fantasy, taking viewers from# the implausible to the accustomed, from the dissolute to the irresolute. Such fluctuations increases the production of a sought-after suspense in that, through an elision of expectation, it heightens viewer attention. Just as the sci-fi of Dark Star is about the purposelessness of space exploration, horror, for Carpenter, becomes as much about a detourned and challenged morality, the meandering of psychical patterns and the projection of frenzied ‘others’, about taking risks with taboos and assaulting the audience with repressed fears that can be rekindled at any time. It is as if Carpenter uses horror as a device to awaken the audience to passions that have been numbed and explained away, a means of awakening people to their own perceptive energies even if this requires recourse to fear. A movie like Halloween becomes experienced at a visceral level where what we see or do not want to see# effects a fascinating pull on us and we become charged with all the anxiety of a voluntary insecurity. Unlike the Hollywood blockbuster movies such as Jaws and Towering Inferno that preceded it, the low-key accent of budgetary restraint works to undermine a sense of intangible and overarching spectacle and instead inflects a ‘genreless everyday’ with suspense and terror. Tension is exaggerated in a way that makes it situated and actually experienceable and this can be contrasted to the way that spectacular movies function as an escape whose exhilaration never lingers for long in the mind’s eye. Whereas big budget movies are in the business of providing spectacles that numb the imaginative faculties, Carpenter’s low budget movies, by applying a policy of ‘less-is-more’, provoke rather than pacify their audiences. The tensions that are established are shared between viewer and screen victims to the extent that a horror movi#e like Halloween plays upon increasing such ‘identifications’: the vulnerability of the victims is felt by the viewer.
This sense of a heightened experience that persists in the afterglow of a film like Halloween is as much an outcome of the way that horror movies are engaged in making everyday objects and activities brimful with suspenseful meaning: in Halloween the very location of the movie in a suburban town plays on the fears that the idyllic dream home, away from urban crime zones, can be entered and violated by unwanted presences. The finale of the picture, with its struggles around the garden, hallways and bedrooms of suburban homes, heightens the horror because it takes place amidst such low-key and undramatic objects as shrubbery, balustrades and louvre-doored clothes cupboards. That the psycho-killer is fought with a knitting needle, a coathanger and other household objects bears this point out. Whatsmore, Carp#enter manages to reinvigorate the thoughtless ritual of ‘Halloween night’ with a new horror as well as reinventing the ‘bogey man’ as an actually existing ‘other’ and not solely as the fairytale fantasy of childhood insecurity. On the theme of the suburban location of the movie we can also add that its depopulated streets (perhaps conditioned by the low-budget) can be read as a further indication of a community that fears interaction and remains within the ‘safety’ of the home. Such ‘fear’ then creates a situation of even greater fear when the psycho-killer, Michael Myers, can return to the town and stalk around the place without being noticed, but it too both heightens the suspense of the audience catching glimpses of the killer just as it increases the sense of violation when Michael Myers breaks into the sanctuary of these homes. Carpenter actively plays on this sense of vulnerability by further iso#lating the adolescent ‘babysitters’ from any sense of parental control and creating a film in which adults play a very minor role. The ‘kids’ have been left on their own, making the ‘babies’ even more at risk, and whilst this has been read as a coded warning against independence it is also charged with an understated mockery of authority figures and a devaluing of a constructed ‘adulthood’. That Dr Loomis, who is on the trail of the escaped Myers, is jumpy and nervous may heighten the sense of supernatural threat, but it also highlights the inability of the institution to contain and ‘cure’ Myers. The other adult of the film is the local cop and, as father to one of the victims, we are witness to his inability to assist in the eventual rout of Michael Myers. This is perhaps an indication that independence and its attendant traumas should be grasped as an overcoming of the fear of autonomy and the fear of ‘others’. Carpenter draws attention to such social-phobia when, at the climax of the movie, Laurie on discovering the bodies of her friends, runs into the still streets and cries for help. As she runs towards one door, a security light automatically flicks on, raising her hopes of another presence and of being saved, but, her attention caught by a movement at a window, she moves towards it only to see the blinds draw to a close.
Much has been made of the way that a movie like Halloween preys upon the fears of adolescent sexuality. Teenage lovemakers are always early victims of the psycho and it is offered that the slasher films are a kind of coded punishment. Yet , just as this sexual component could similarly be referred to the ‘adult’ fear of the death of innocence marked by the sexual awakening of their own children, it also relates to a wider field of sexual disturbance and repression. Teenage lovemaking is furtive and, in the context of the slasher movies, exposed because of the repression and taboos wh#ich, they seem to suggest, surrounds it. This potential dysfunction is played out through the character of the psycho-killer himself and becomes another device by which ‘horror’ can be registered. Michael Myers, we are informed, became a deranged psychopath after witnessing his sister making love on Halloween night. This is a quite transparent reference to the theory of the ‘primal scene’ where the child is said to be traumatised by witnessing or subliminally overhearing its parents making love. As with the medical summation of Norman Bates’s condition in Psycho, such explanations can be nothing more than a gloss, a transplanting of psycho-analytical orthodoxy into a film which is hardly a case-study, yet it does manage to raise the spectre that Michael Myers is a product of a familial network, that rather than the threat being the metaphysical entity of demonic possession films like The Exorcist, the threat here is a product of the social environment of the suburban town# and one that has been just as exposed to the ‘primal scene’ as anyone else. The threat Michael Myers poses is, then, an internal one that is, theoretically at least, shared by others at the same time that it is a threat constituted by the collective failure to understand the particular development of the dysfunction that afflicts Michael Myers. This connection between the psycho-killer and the community upon which he returns to wreak a ‘vengeance’, taken up again with a more politically motivated justification in The Fog (4), was drawn by Carpenter when he countered claims that Halloween was a film that punished female sexuality: “…if you turn it around, the one girl who is most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a long knife. She’s the most sexually frustrated. She’s the one that killed him. Not because she’s a virgin, but because all that repressed energy starts coming out…She and the killer have a certain link: sexual repression” (5). It is such links as the#se, the alternation of frenzy and sadism between two ostensibly separate characters in the final showdown, which come to exercise such a strange resonance upon the viewer’s ‘second screen’ that it both underpins and darkens the fear and disgust that is felt on viewing the brutality. This link is strengthened by the way that Carpenter presents Michael Myers as wearing a grey institutional jumpsuit that is reminiscent of the garb of a parachute regiment and how he has Myers donning what seems to be a featureless mask. The mask (or is it the face?) is pale enough to be illumined by the light and through its lack of distinguishing features it uncannily offers itself as an imaginative mirror that reflects any and all the fears that are projected onto it. Michael Myers it seems could be anyone, or more to the point, he represents an imaginary ‘other’: a blindspot of perception or a collective nightmare that, being repressed, returns with an inhuman force.
A major inspiration behind the critical reappraisal of such slasher films as Halloween is the repeating occurrence of a showdown between the last remaining victim and the psycho-killer. In Halloween it is Laurie who eludes, takes on, outwits and almost singlehandedly dispatches Michael Myers. For critics like Carol Clover this leads to the subversive occurrence of, for these films, a mainly male cinema audience identifying with a female protagonist which, for Clover, is creative of gender destabilisation and patterns of cross identifications. However, this upsetting of the iron law of female=passive/male=active, can lead towards the conjecture that slasherfilms like Halloween engage their audiences in a non-gender specific ritual of sado-masochism that in many ways help to deconstruct the continued prevalence of gender stereotypes. The director of such films, offers Clover, is considered as the sadist, deliberately constructing obscenity and shocks that a thrilled audience laps up masochist#ically. Though this gets away from the gender specifities of active/passive it still, following Freud, splits the two ‘instincts’ of active and passive rather than seeing them as dynamical instances of the same drive. This is echoed by the way that Laurie is both the most prolonged victim and the most self-reliant and autonomous character in Halloween. There is a merging of the different facets of active and passive in the character of Laurie and whilst Clover offers that the ‘final girl’ is masculinized (ie names like Laurie and wielding the ‘phallus’ knife) this seems to resubmit women to a socially constructed passivity conditioned by that other ‘law’ of film criticism: the camera is the ‘male gaze’ objectively framing female abjection. This attempt to make a piece of technology gender specific is undermined by the variegated camerawork that can be experienced in Halloween (a camerawork that supplies different contexts). One of the most pronounced attractions of such horror films is the way# that there is “a continual construction of looks, and hence a shifting production of spectator position, so that it is the structure of the looks in a film which is determining of the spectators place, not a content for that look” (6). The very instability of the spectators position may be indicative of a technologically mediated view that surpasses gender and encourages all manner of identifications in the manner of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a ‘non-human, machinic sex’. At the level of a movie like Halloween the uncertainty of our position is creative of a suspense that, as with sado-masochism, encourages an identification as a “continually shifting construction of subject position… producing a subject in-process” (7). We watch Halloween from a variety of different positions (contexts) which carry their own inflections. Most startling amongst these is the celebrated point-of-view shot where the camera takes the position of Michael Myers as he stalks, peers through windows, d#ons a halloween mask and raises a glinting blade. This sequence of shots induces the disturbing sensation of an audience ‘identification’ with the killer and the temporary occupation of a ‘sadistic’ position with all its unconscious resonances of repressed anger and subdued violence. Part of the ‘horror’ of a film like Halloween is, then, not simply being disturbed by a content of primitive blood lust and irrational violence but it is the thrill of a kind of powerlessness whereby we are drawn into a ricocheting, and at times ‘forced’, identification with killer, victim, director and other spectators: a cinematic community? Yet these standpoints are themselves imbricated so that often, not knowing from which viewpoint we are watching, a sense of subjective instability, being caught between looks, is heightened. This is demonstrated by Carpenter when he has the camera ‘track’ Laurie in middle distance shots. Knowing that Michael Myers is in the area such an objective framing of Laurie implies surveillanc#e but, alluding to the killer’s-eye view that opens the movie, Carpenter has the camera encircle Laurie as she walks and then has it move in closer towards her. Just as this gives rise to a sense of surveillance as a violation and the concomitant thrill of an illicit voyeurism, in terms of the generation of suspense Carpenter also manages to imply the threat to Laurie at the same time that he establishes a spectator ‘fear’ of every camera movement and every edit. Not only does this lead to an increased identification with the character of Laurie, which is presenced by the camera adopting her point of view as she investigates the scene of the murders (another link between her and Myers), it has the spectator taking part in a ritual that is sado-masochistic in all but name: there are the long drawn out periods of ‘plateau’ tension; the repetition of acts of violence, scenes, scenarios and sequels; the spartan and austere minimalism of the location, sets and soundtrack that allows for a focus uniterrupted b#y explicatory ‘significance’; the formulaic and ‘expected plan’ of the movies where the audience ‘knows’ but its foreknowledge doesn’t remove the surprise or the thrill of delay. Anxious fear, experienced as an excess of stimulation, has been sensed as erotic or libidinally charged, and, to a certain degree, by being turned into pleasure, has been overcome: “once he has undergone punishment, he feels that he is allowed or indeed commanded to experience the pleasure that the law was supposed to forbid” (8).
This all adds up to a film like Halloween effecting a state of being hyperconscious and this is reflected in the afterglow of the film where a temporary fissure in our ‘normal’ perception of reality can be opened up. Not only is pleasure experienced in relation to something coded as ‘displeasureable’, realigned and expanded, there is the sensation of being subjectively dismantled. That this sense of lingering stimulus does not evaporate at the onset of the credits i#s purposively prolonged in Halloween by means of the denouement of Michael Myers’s ‘survival’ and the way that Carpenter ends the film without resolution: the vanquishers have only survived and not conquered; the threat has been dispersed rather than contained. Again, Carpenter extends this by having the very last sequence of the film comprised of still, depopulated shots of the suburban homes. This seems to have the effect of doubling and reinforcing the fear that has been experienced, charging our own familiar environment with a disquiet conditioned and provoked by the cumulative effect of a sequence of positional views, the creation of Michael Myers as a ubiquitous and indestructible character and our being ‘victim-identified’ with the character of Laurie. The emptiness of these still shots seems to provoke and heighten our own recollection of the events of the film. The absence of Myers from these shots implies his presence everywhere whilst the banality of th#e shots extends the atmosphere of the movie into the habitual scenes of our own environment. So, just as Laurie has been watched and we have watched Michael Myers watch her, so too, it seems that this watching does not exclude a lingering sense of ourselves as watched. As spectators we are thus made temporarily paranoid or, to quote Benjamin, we experience a “deepening of apperception”(9). Having been in a situation of passivity, rather than in one of active mastery of the gaze, we have been receptive to the degree that our capacity to be “affected” has led to a transgression of our protective ego boundaries. This ‘radical passivity’ (with all its passion for perceiving) results in a spilling-over (a surplus of the ‘second screen’) which enables an imaginative projection outside ourselves. We become both subject and object of an imaginary gaze that posits the presence of someone else and becomes indicati#ve of the way that subjectivity is a social construction. This sense of paranoia, which is as taboo as the “interplay of disavowal and suspense” of sado-masochism, brings to light an experience of multiple imaginative presences, where, even alone we are conjoined: “Any motivation of one’s behaviour, any instance of self awareness… is an act of gauging oneself against some social norm… in becoming aware of myself, I attempt to look at myself as it were through the eyes of another person” (10).
(Why Should Anyone Shoot at A Police Station?) If the main component of horror in Halloween was the return of Michael Myers and his bringing of terror to a suburban town then Carpenter’s previous movie, and perhaps the most cultish of all his films, deals with the breakdown of law and order in the inner city and effects a triggering of those perennial fears that the social order can## be threatened and challenged by armed insurrection. In Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter transforms the cavalry fort of the Western into a Police precinct building and instead of Native American Indians as the threat Carpenter assembles, with a forenod to such movies as The Warriors, a multi-racial gang of vague motive. If the Native Indians are, in terms of Hollywood westerns, an external threat that need to be domesticated and placed in reservations, then the gang in Assault can be figured as an internal threat that has arisen from the modern day reservation of the ‘Anderson’ ghetto. Like the Native Indians they are more denizens than citizens but unlike the Native Indians they cannot stake any indigenous claim upon a territory. Knowing nothing other t#han their own disenfranchisement the gang of Assault are figured as refugees and it is just this sense of disquiet that Carpenter harnesses as a component of the horror: the gang, belonging nowhere, come to “break the identity between the human and the citizen and that between nativity and nationality”. As refugees they bring “the originary fiction of sovereignty to crisis” (11). But these refugees are uniting and combining together and whereas The Warriors has its gangs both territorially and ethnically divided, and begins its story at the moment when a massed rally fails to bring everyone together, Assault has the gang directing its violence, not against other gangs but against a police station and, by extension, against the very institution that visibly enforces the notion of law, order and sovereignty. That the gang, called ‘Blue Thunder’, is multi-racial is emphasised in an earl#y scene where four member go through the ‘blood brothers’ ritual and whilst this shows them as willing to inflict cuts upon themselves to draw blood, thus accentuating their fearlessness, it also, by having one of the more prominent gang members wearing a beret with a red triangle insignia upon it, make an oblique reference to the garb of the Black Panthers and to the politically motivated urban guerrilla movement that was a feature of this period of the 70s. In many ways this gang represent the worse fears of the authorities: their surpassing of the artificially created barriers between different races seems to suggest that they at least have overcome racial division to unite in terms of class and exclusion. So, if in Halloween Michael Myers is acting from uncontrollable psychotic impulses, if he is compelled to kill, then these gang members have chosen to k#ill and have consciously abandoned a naturalising morality that constrains them. They are, as an Italian left-communist once said, “sans reserve”, placed outside a society that has rejected them and willing to work only on bettering their own exclusion. As with the Native Indian threat of the Western movie, Carpenter has his gang being armed with stolen guns which function as the signal for danger and impending violence but, as with some Westerns, the motive for the impending attack is the massacre of six gang members in a narrowly confined canyon-like alley. The gang are returning a violence that has been enacted upon some of their members but the ferocity of the violence, perhaps conditioned by the narrative exigencies of an ‘action’ movie, works also to undermine the opening #massacre as the sole motive. That Carpenter has his ‘empty street’ shots of the ‘Anderson’ district cluttered-up by rubbish and stalking dogs seems to suggest that the ‘ghetto’ has been forgotten. Could it be that persistent social inequalities have led to this uprising? Have the gang members been abandoned by a society that structures and maintains their very dispossession?
#Though Carpenter is not interested in crafting political movies as such, the narrative ‘emptiness’ of Assault, the way it is never intently overcoded with an overriding moral message allows for seepage and introjection. Outside of one character’s saying, “Why would anybody shoot at a police station?” no character makes judgments about the gang but, as if to heighten a sense of trauma, they all cope with the situation as if it were an inevitable and ever-expected outcome. The fact that no-one directly answers this question in the movie makes Assault function politically for the question is thereby addressed to the audience who can either answer it from the hints that the movie offers or a#dd to these hints elements from their own perspective. Such stark amoralism, epitomised by the scene in which the gang execute a little girl who has just bought an ice-cream, doesn’t readily lend itself to appease viewer response with an accompaniment of liberal platitudes about how things can be bettered and reformed and this very minimalism seems, in a way that must appear ‘horrific’ to some viewers, to condone the gang uprising. Just as the guile and determination of the Native Indians in some Westerns encourages a shifting of audience sympathies, so in Assault, the gang members, being concertedly organised and tactically sophisticated, are treated as equal combatants on a battlefield of someone elses making. It is as if the gang have planned the assault and know how to sever communications: take out phone lines, make roadblocks, use silencers. They are visible and invisible at the same time, stalking the territory like urban guerrillas and this facet of their attack is highlighted when Carpenter has them whisk in front of the camera in such numbers and at such a pace that their wispy figures are barely registerable as solid outlines: “such beings are unaccountable; they come like destiny, without rhyme of reason, ruthlessly, bare of pretexts. Suddenly they are here, like a stroke of lightening, too terrible, convincing, and ‘different’ for hatred even” (12). Perhaps Carpenter’s overriding aim to make an action movie and to heighten this by having the assault take place in a ‘real-time’ duration (emphasised when one character, in recalling the opening salvo, says the attack started “thirty minutes ago”) means that the reason for the gang’s assault is lost amidst the surprise element of the attack but it also seems to leave the way open to the suggestive sense that the pretext #for the attack has been ever-present. When reasons are offered up they strike the viewer with their simplicity: the gang are seeking revenge and are attacking the precinct building because the father of the murdered girl, who killed one of their number, is being sheltered there; the crimewave, remarked upon before the assault, is absurdly ascribed to “sunspots putting pressure on the atmosphere”. The first denies the fact that the gang have a political reason to attaack but it also seems to leave the way open to the suggestive sense that the pretext #for the attack has been ever-present. When reasons are offered up they strike the viewer with their simplicity: the gang are seeking revenge and are attacking the precinct building because the father of the murdered girl, who killed one of their number, is being sheltered there; the crimewave, remarked upon before the assault, is absurdly ascribed to “sunspots putting pressure on the atmosphere”. The first denies the fact that the gang have a political reason to attack the precinct building as it is not only the local emblem of state power but is the territory of those who massacred the six gang members. The second functions more as an indication of the general inability to ascribe social reasons to crime at the same time that, being heard as a phenomena reported by radio news, it is regurgitated unreflectively as a piece of mediatised knowledge that posits a random causality.
Just as Romero makes his zombies purposefu#lly enigmatic, without “origin or referent”, Carpenter, by depicting the gang in a similarly ambiguous light can ensure that his movie is not interpreted as a struggle between good and evil. Having left this moral terrain Carpenter can build upon the drama of circumstance rather than the drama of outcome. In Assault the situation itself is the focus of our attention and the very fact that there are no characters, outside the precinct, who are aware of the siege, works to heighten the tension at the same time that it resists the temptation of an added moral framing by not succumbing to the rhetoric of rescue operations. That there is no cavalry around the corner means that Carpenter can focus solely on what takes place inside the precinct building and thus throw into relief the contradictions and d#ivisions between characters as well as the instability of shifting alliances. Foremost among these is the fact that the leading character, Lft.Bishop, is black, and even before the assault begins, we are witness to an undercurrent of racism from the desk sergeant. Bishop, himself from the Anderson district, has had unsavoury experiences in this same precinct building and he recounts that when he was reported for a minor prank the cops had told him that “we lock up little boys who make mistakes”. The menace implied in this bullying tease is one of inducing a fear of the authorities and it works to initially create the sense that Bishop could well be sympathetic towards the gang members. Furthermore, as a newly promoted cop, there is the hint that Bishop, not entrusted with a more #responsible duty on his “first night out”, has been given the ‘babysitting’ job of guarding the precinct building on its last night before being relocated. Of the other main characters there are two convicted killers, Wilson and Wells, who are spending the night in the holding cells and Leigh the secretary who, rather than fulfilling the function of wallflower, here gives as good a she gets and in a twist of the romantic genre convention has a ‘romantic’ encounter with Wilson that is memorable for its hard edged cynicism and understated control of gesture. That the final grouping in defence of the precinct is comprised of these four people means that the alliance is always undercut by the threat that the convicts will turn on Bishop and Leigh and secure their own freedom. T#hat this does not transpire is as much a means that Carpenter can exacerbate the threat right the way through, but it also serves to further dislodge the normal patterns of identification: Bishop the black cop and Wilson the white convict is one upsetting of the formula but the fact that Wilson and Bishop treat each other with respect somehow seems to refer back to a mutual suffering of injustice that has their defence of the precinct as a way that they, like the gang, are fighting back against an unspoken and displaced injustice that exists unconsciously for them. At the end of the movie, after the two of them have moved into the street behind a protective sign saying “support your local police officer”, and the cops come to re-shackle Wilson, Bishop cries out “get away from him”. The combi#nation of the sign and the cry, that Bishop the cop should be defending a convicted killer, seems to be suggestive of his suspicion that the law is a means of protecting an unjust society. This cry, from the usually cool and resourceful Bishop, is maybe also indicative of a sense, like in Halloween, that survival is no victory. Here what is left for the victor is a continuance of the dysfunction that has entrapped Bishop in the first place. The very relocation of the precinct is, following the Western reference of the film, suggestive of a withdrawal from the territory, a surrender of the outpost with a nod towards the failure of the ‘domesticating’ mission that established the precinct as an outpost. This sense of a society at the limit of functioning and teetering #on the brink of social collapse is further manifested in various subtle and unspectacular ways. In one scene a prison guard tries to phone another precinct and experiences first no answer from the operator, followed by a repeated holding message, and then no dial tone. During the initial stages of the assault the lights and electricity going off is explained away as “another power failure” and when the phone lines go down one character, hoping that the precinct occupants can be saved, says “don’t the phone company actually know when there’s a line down?” Throughout the siege the occupants persistently believe that they will be rescued and this is as much an indication of their reliance and faith in the protective authority of institutions and technology. Wilson, who has been on the receiving end of such apparatus, has little faith and it could be that Bishop’s cry at the end of the film is as much related to his own growing awareness that the systems an#d institutions he has trusted and served have and will continue to fail him.
The minimalism of both Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 which infects dialogue, characterisation, setting and soundtrack seems to insist, through a kind of inverse charge, on the very open endedness of the meanings that can be gleaned from them. A lack of specific signification to which we are accustomed seems to give rise to an excess of signification which is as much propelled by Assault’s genre ambiguity and playful inversion of the formulas. Like the electronic soundtrack, composed and played by Carpenter, the emptiness seems to result in a widening of conceptual and imaginary space that butts-up and takes a kind of energy from the shadowed shots and claustrophobia of the siege. In one way Assault could be described as a movie about alienation in that dialogue, theme and moral tenor are so understated as to seem truculently resistant to communication. And yet we can also infer from such minimalism that Carpenter is offering us a film where the ambiguity of gesture and mood is given a more important role than the specific and often unrealistic motives that we are usually subjected to. It is as if by reducing his directorial role to one of cinematic technique (the construction of shots, framing and the jump-cut edits of the action sequences), that Carpenter recoils from the role of moral arbiter that is usually the lot and responsibility of the director (just think of the sickly and lachrymose films of Spielberg or the host of left-liberal films where the little people get by and get through). By refusing to ‘interfere’ with the movie by inflecting it with a particular message or with specific lines of untroubled alliance, Carpenter does not allow Assault to be encumbered with conventional meanings. We don’t know who we’re ‘rooting-for’ here. From the angle of the soundtrack this is ensured by Carpenter’s use of analogue synthesizer which, whilst giving the movie a ‘future-setting’ type feel, works, in retrospect, as a further means of setting the movie apart from audience expectation. Though the choice of a sparse single note synthesizer theme seems to infer a technological alienation (that is also inferred in Halloween when the babysitters speak to each other by phone even though they are only across the road form each other) it may actually function more positively in alienating the audience from those responses elicited by more conventional methods of scoring films. Instead of using a soundtrack that dictates what the audience is supposed to feel and how it is supposed to respond, Carpenter further unmoors the audience and casts it adrift from recognising too readily what ‘type’ of film it is watching. As with the Halloweed soundtrack, Carpenter’s electronic scores point in the direction of an abstraction of feeling in that an electronic sound doesn’t, like say the more customary string orchestra, necessarily imply an ethereal response that takes the audience transcendentally ‘out of itself’. In this way, as with all his early films, the horror arises in the dislocation of the ‘fantasy-world’ of the cinema and its replacement with something that could be perceived as dry and objective but which, like suspense, alludes to the interplay interplay between feeling and thought. The Halloween theme provides further examples of such a presencing. Here synthesizer is dry to the extent of always remaining within a limited timbral and rhythmic range. This ‘compression’ of the sound, the confines of repetition as well as, the at times, exageratedly slow tempo, all add to the pressure of the suspense as Myers stalks the neighbourhood. Such methods also seem, by refusing the flurries and bombast of other horror film soundtracks, to add to a prolongation of attentive-tension befitting of Carpenter’s expressed aim to make a feature length film from the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Even this latter film, scored by Bernard Herrmann, allows for passages of lightened atmosphere, but with Halloween we are only given an ironic referencing of The Chordette’s “Mr Sandman”: an acappella song that, by its placing of conventional melody and secure familiarity, seems not to lighten the atmosphere but to make the electronic soundtrack take on an even starker dimension. Returning to Assault on Precinct 13, the rhythmic stealth of its theme works to communicate the determination of the gang and its very repetition, the way that it does not reach swelling string climaxes, is, as with Halloween, suggestive of the lack of resolution and therefore the dispersion into society of the threat that the gang poses. That variants of this t#heme have been taken up in electro music of various kinds from Afrika Bambaataa to I-F, also suggests how there is an excitement around the gang’s assault and that they becomes vicarious emissaries of viewer dissension. The ‘horror’ of Assault seems to lie in this direction: that it does not code the uprising as morally wrong but welcome and inevitable.
(Autotraumatise) Being exposed to fright and crisis, placing ourselves in a position where we can be traumatised leads to a situation where we #acclimatise ourselves to fear, inhabit it and become fearless enough to confront other fears. On so many occasions it is even a memory that we cannot revisit and, anxious before a return to a site or a scene, anxious of what it may conjure up in the mind’s eye, we remain in a paralysed state of fear rather than become accustomed to confrontation, re-vision and secession. Fearful, even, and ignorant of the full ramifications of what constitutes and still constitutes us. So,we should be relieved that we are p#rotected and the search will go on… the search for a father or a boss who will, in returning our imploring gaze, see to it that we will never be independent or autonomous but will remain in this situation of servitude unable even to make a mistake or an error or a criticism. Thus the adrenalin of fear is dissipated and the libidinal charge it effects soon cloys to other more respected and repressed scenes.But, living at such a low-ebb beneath the infra-red glare, we will die the slow death of the inexperienced and inarticulate slasher victim, and, clocking-in and clocking-out to the rhythm of cyclical schedules, we may find that we no longer have the energy with which to scream, cannot even hear our own inner voice, our social voice, have become deaf to it in our flight from the traumas it may re-present to us. Yes, everything is perfect, everything is fine, it’s just you, you looking back out at me with your emotionless eyes….
(1) see Carol J Clover: Men, Women and Chainsaws, BFI 1992. Also Steven Shaviro’s chapter on George Romero in his The Cinematic Body, Minnesota 1993.
(2) Carpenter cited by Carol Clover, ibid, p 5. Carpenter’s first movie, Dark Star, takes many such risks that range from… framing the astronauts as exploited and discarded proletarians, supplanted by computers… to having one of them talk phenomenolgy to a computerised bomb.
(3) Carpenter cited by Carol Clover, ibid, p160.
(4) Here the ghosts of a trawler crew have been doublecrossed by the founding ‘fathers’ of a coastal town and their return, signalled by a green ‘atomic’ fog, is prompted by a motivation to right the historic wrongs. A kind of pay it all, pay it all, pay it all back’ !
(5) Carpenter cited by Carol Clover, ibid, p48.
(6) Elizabeth Cowie: Representing The Woman: Cinema and#Psychoanalysis, Macmillan 1997, p7.
(8) Gilles Deleuze: Coldness and Cruelty, Zone Books 1986, p88.
(9) Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, Fontana 1992, p229.
(10) Voloshinov: Freudianism – A Critical Sketch, Indiana 1987, p86.
(11)Giorgio Agamben: ‘Beyond Human Rights’ in Radical Thought in Italy, ed. PaoloVirno and Michael Hardt, Minnesota 1996, p161-2.
(12) Friedrich Nietzsche: Genealogy of Morals, Doubleday 1956,p220.
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